An impossible brief: how one architect solved the puzzle of an extension dilemma

PUBLISHED: 18:23 06 February 2017 | UPDATED: 18:34 06 February 2017

How do you make a West Hampstead garden flat feel like it is not in London?

How do you make a West Hampstead garden flat feel like it is not in London?

Studio McLeod

With a broken heart and a dream for her West Hampstead flat to not be in London, Louise Cole had a brief most architects would baulk at. Luckily, that’s what Duncan McLeod loves most

The internal courtyard allows the garden to be viewed from the master bedroom The internal courtyard allows the garden to be viewed from the master bedroom

When your life falls apart, sometimes the only thing to do is knock everything down and start again.

Usually that would simply be a metaphor for clearing away the debris of the past and starting afresh, but for Louise Cole it took the form of something more literal.

After splitting up with her partner in 2010 Louise bought a ground floor flat in Gondar Gardens, West Hampstead.

It was the 100 ft south facing rear garden that attracted her, rather than the Victorian conversion itself.

A folded roof adds visual interest and lets daylight into the space A folded roof adds visual interest and lets daylight into the space

“The flat was a bit ‘meh’ really,” she says.

Dark and poorly laid out, the property was a world away from Louise’s dream of a light, airy home connected to the outside space.

It was a big ask, and Louise struggled to find an architect up to the challenge until a mutual friend introduced her to architect Duncan McLeod.

“She was really good at being very clear with what she wanted. Very quickly in the process we developed a brief, which was seemingly impossible,” says Duncan.

The overhanging roof allows the doors to stay open whatever the weather The overhanging roof allows the doors to stay open whatever the weather

“We really liked that. We actually love it when clients ask for the seemingly impossible. We think it’s really exciting; it challenges us.”

Challenge accepted, Duncan set about developing what has now become Studio McLeod’s signature form of ‘architectural therapy.’

Much like the process of piecing ones life back together again, the puzzle of re structuring the layout of her home would require a fair amount of soul searching alongside the logistics.

“There can be a tendency to respond too quickly as a designer. We very much go in and try and understand that what they are asking for is really what is going to make the biggest difference in their life.”

The wood burning stove is Louise's favourite part of her new home The wood burning stove is Louise's favourite part of her new home

Duncan encourages clients to re evaluate what they want from their homes from the perspective of the why, rather than the what.

“Instead of giving him a list of functional requirements he made me take a step back,” says Louise.

“He asked: ‘how do you live? What do you love?’

The brief they came up with together was ambitious and twofold.

Natural stone and timber flooring defines the living and dining areas in the main reception room Natural stone and timber flooring defines the living and dining areas in the main reception room

“Instead of going for an easy solution we tried to accommodate some of the more crazy stuff,” says Louise

Firstly, she wanted to be able to lie in bed and have a view of the garden.

“I mostly bought it for the garden so it was really important that whatever I did with it I could see the garden,” she says.

Secondly, and even more challengingly, she didn’t want her north London flat to be in the city.

To solve Lousie's brief the architects flipped the layout of the flat To solve Lousie's brief the architects flipped the layout of the flat

“I wanted to feel like I wasn’t in London. I had a busy job and I wanted to come home and feel like I was in the Cornish countryside so that when I came in and shut the door that was it.”

These two requests required a radical alteration of the property, knocking down the existing extension and completely re ordering the layout.

“It was a really bad extension; it was just plonked on the back. Louise had actually paid for somebody else’s mistake, and we were very conscious of that when we did the building,” says Duncan.

The new layout flipped the flat, putting the living and dining area at the rear of the building, with mono sliding glass doors providing an unobstructed view out into the garden.

The origami style folds in the roof allow for plenty of natural light to filter through, whilst the bay window style arrangement of the glass at the back provides a metre more of living space that transitions seamlessly from the interior to the exterior.

To solve the bedroom view dilemma Duncan added an internal courtyard, providing Louise with an unobstructed line of sight through the space and out into the garden beyond. She even has a switch installed by her bed, so she can turn out the outside lights last thing at night.

“We treat every extension we do as a sculptural element, pushing and nudging and stretching it so it is as large as possible for the client without upsetting the neighbours,” he explains.

Duncan sites the art of minimalist sculptors such as James Turrell, Richard Long, Donald Judd as inspiration, and is at pains to stress that ‘minimalist’ doesn’t translate to ‘a plain white box’.

“People want that sculpture, that flair: people call it the wow factor. Most people want to walk into the place they are living in and have their breath taken away a little,” he says.

The budget was tight, and with so much structural work to accommodate Duncan had to be creative with regards to materials without missing out on the chance to wow.

“We ended up with a simple, crafted aesthetic,” he says.

Stained oak flooring in the main living area alludes to the gentle weathering of the Cornish coast, whilst the ‘Tundra’ stone in the dining area gives a “stormy sky” feel.

“It needs to be stunningly beautiful, that is what we aim for. Not because of vanity but because it has hit the right spiritual or natural light feel and the materials all feel right and personal to their lifestyle and taste.”

Six years later the wow factor is still very much there.

“You feel like you are out of London. You get that little piece of peace and quiet. From the outside you would think it is just another terrace, then you shut the front door and it feels like you have entered Narnia,” she says.

To get there required a leap of faith on both the part of the architect and the client.

“There’s a certain element of trust there. They are certainly trusting you with a lot of money and getting it right. You have to go beyond deciding where to put their kitchen and dining room,” says Duncan.

Louise is full of praise for he architect, and the pair remain friends.

“He delivered it beautifully, he delivered it on budget and he looked after me all the way through. He didn’t just dump me with his artistic vision and bugger of and leave me with the builders. He delivered it all – and I got a walk in wardrobe!”

Responding to a break up by knocking down most of your house and gutting the rest might seem like an extreme one, but for Louise the confidence she gained from the experience was important.

“It was one of those big, life changing projects,” she tells me.

“It was one of those moments in your life where you feel you have screwed everything up and this is the project that is going to put you back together again – and it did. I learnt that I was a lot braver than I thought.”

Plus, in a charming twist of fate it, was during the project she met the man who is now her live-in partner.

“I was supposed to live there on my own, but as soon as I started building the flat this bloke arrived and would not leave,” she jokes. “I think it is the wood burning stove. I don’t blame him! He’s been here for six years now; I can’t get rid of him.”

Studio McLeod

320 Kilburn Lane, W9 3EF


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